Paper? Plastic? Neither?

It may shock you to know that in the paper versus plastic debate, plastic actually wins most of the environmental points. According to a research paper released in Ireland in 20111, “Paper in landfills does not degrade or break down at a substantially faster rate than plastic does… [and] a paper bag takes up more space than a plastic bag in a landfill.” Additionally, “it takes more than four times as much energy to manufacture a paper bag as it does to manufacture a plastic bag.” Finally, plastic bags tend to have a significantly longer usability life than paper bags because they are stronger, standing up significantly better and longer to moisture and weight.  So, it is a myth that paper is better than plastic when it comes to environmental considerations. That being said, plastic isn’t ideal for the environment either, it merely stands up to use and reuse better than paper and takes up less space at landfills, et cetera.

It is important to recognize that plastic is likely the better option when it comes to eco-friendly business and packaging because this article is about the future of plastic. Specifically, this article is about the future of sustainable packaging which is focusing more and more on the plastics industry. That, as indicated above, is actually a good thing.

In March of 2017, it was announced that Procter and Gamble is one of the companies taking the lead on sustainability and reusability in plastics. Their latest goal is to produce “the first fully recyclable shampoo bottle made with beach plastic,” a goal which “encourages the reduction of virgin plastic creation and seeks to find economical ways to innovatively reuse existing plastic.” This is vital when you consider that “95 % of the 300 million tons of virgin plastic produced every year is used only one time.” Reusing that plastic will minimize landfill use and plastic pollution.

There are other innovations on the rise in the plastics industry aimed at minimizing waste and pollution and benefitting both the environment as well as production costs. In 2014, The Washington Post looked at the future of edible packaging, a movement which is still emerging but which is doing so with increasing enthusiasm and optimism. If you’ve seen the original Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory film, you may recall the scene where Mr. Wonka drinks something from a seemingly plastic buttercup and then, when it’s empty, takes a crunching bite out of the cup itself. This could very well be the future of packaging, likely starting with food packaging.

The Post article looks at companies that are working on designing packaging that’s visually appealing and even as tasty as the food products it stores. One company was exploring the use of seaweed agar for plastic cups; “seaweed agar turned out to be the ideal biodegradable material for fashioning the kind of thick, rigid structures necessary for holding drinks. Popular primarily as an ingredient in Asian desserts, the algae-derived polymer is also easier to chew than alternatives like animal collagen.” A cup that’s just as tasty (if not tastier) than the beverage it would hold? Sign me up!

Of course, there are obvious barriers to this science; such as the need to produce protective material and how if the packaging is biodegradable, it might be less protective than it needs to be. That’s why we don’t have mass-produced edible cups and Ziploc bags as yet.

Some scientists in Berlin are exploring the use of “edible film” as a way to replace the often used two layers of packaging for foods and other goods. If one of the layers is edible or biodegradable, that minimizes (sometimes cutting in half) the amount of waste necessitated by that product. That means that this type of solution is not a primary solution, but it is a solution that could help to minimize an extensive problem and which could be advanced to a possible ultimate solution.

While we are not yet at the point where edible or biodegradable plastics and other materials are going to be taking over the packaging industry and reversing the effects of climate change; we are advancing. The fact that this problem/solution pairing is at the forefront of most industry leaders’ minds is also important.

Understanding that plastic is still a necessary aspect of packaging dictates a continued and increasing focus on maximizing the eco-friendly qualities of plastics packaging. Cord Unbehaun observed several future packaging trends at a packaging Expo in February 2017. He writes for “It’s not just the big players anymore,” who are exploring ways to make packaging better for the environment. One of the main focuses is one you’ve likely noticed as a consumer: making packaging more lightweight. This is why your plastic bottles seem thinner and the caps on those bottles have gotten smaller. “It seems everyone is trying lightweight packaging in 2017,” he continues, adding that “not only can eco-friendly packaging reduce your company’s carbon footprint, but it can save you money as well.” This isn’t necessarily always the case, as far as saving money. That being said, with more and more transparency emerging via social media and the Internet, and more and more people looking to influence the brands they invest in as far as being socially and environmentally conscious, it is going to be harder to be a successful company with a loyal customer-base if you aren’t working on your environmental impact.

If you can reduce the weight of your packaging, or slightly increase the primary packaging in order to eliminate secondary packaging, those are solid methods to consider for minimizing your environmental impact.

As a business owner, a consumer packager or whatever industry you’re in, look into how your company can best benefit the environment, whether that be switching back to plastic, encouraging customers to bring their own tote bags (which is ultimately the best for the environment in the long run), using lighter-weight plastics or investing in research into biodegradable plastics, keeping the environment under consideration is no longer something you can ignore while remaining a successful consumer business.

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